Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Press Release

January 13, 2009

Commissioner Carol Ash: Testimony Before The Joint Fiscal Committees of the State Legislature on the FY 2009-10 State Budget

Senate Finance Chair Kruger and Assembly Ways & Means Chair Farrell, thank you for the opportunity to be with you today to discuss Governor Paterson's proposed budget for State Parks for Fiscal Year 2009-10. Thank you also Senator Serrano and Assemblyman Englebright, Chairs of the Tourism Committees, and Senator Thompson and Assemblyman Sweeney, Chairs of the Environmental Conservation Committees, as well as other committee members here today.

We all know that New York State faces an unprecedented financial challenge, and that all parts of state government must significantly reduce our expenditures to align with the state's fiscal realities. Over the past year, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has implemented a number of actions to reduce expenditures, and the 2009-10 Executive Budget contains additional cost saving measures. Our budget decisions have been guided by a single, over-riding principle: we are committed to minimizing adverse impacts to the agency's primary mission - providing quality recreational and interpretive experiences to the more than 55 million visitors to our State Parks and Historic Sites, and being responsible stewards of the lands, waters, and historic resources under our care.

My testimony today covers three main areas of the agency's budget: a) our continuing capital program to revitalize the State Parks System; b) our agency operating budget and programs; and c) preparations underway in anticipation of a proposed federal stimulus program.

The New York State Parks System consists of 178 State Parks and 35 Historic Sites and is widely recognized as one of the finest in the nation. Among the fifty states, our annual visitation of more than 55 million ranks third in the nation. We are first in the number of operating facilities and, when campgrounds operated by the DEC are included with ours, first in the total number of campsites. Our system totals 325,000 acres of lands and waters, making New York fifth in total acreage. Niagara Falls is the oldest state park in the nation and Washington's Headquarters is the first publicly-owned state historic site.

For more than a century, New York has invested in world-class recreational and interpretive facilities at our State Parks and Historic Sites. Today, our agency is responsible for managing a huge inventory of public facilities including 5,000 buildings, 29 golf courses, 52 swimming pools, 76 beaches, 27 marinas, 40 boat launch sites, 18 nature centers, 817 cabins, 8,355 campsites, more than 1,350 miles of trails, 106 dams, 640 bridges, hundreds of miles of roads, and dozens of historic structures listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. New York's State Parks System reflects the beauty, diversity, and grandeur of our state. It truly is one of New York's great public assets.

In the past two years, I've visited most of our State Parks and Historic Sites. In many parts of the state, I was able to share these experiences with members of the Senate and Assembly, and to those legislators who were able to join me on these visits, I offer a special thank you.

One overarching theme has emerged from our travels across the state. Simply stated, the State Parks system is suffering from decades of underinvestment, with the result that our recreational facilities and infrastructure are in dire need of rehabilitation and replacement. Many parks have significant health and safety concerns that require immediate attention. Our park buildings and infrastructure are aging and deteriorating, diminishing the outdoor experience for park visitors.

A thorough assessment of our system has identified a backlog of critical capital investment needs exceeding $650 million. The bulk of our capital backlog falls into two categories:

Health and Safety Projects. The state parks continue to face a number of health and safety issues. We have outdated drinking water systems that need to be replaced. We have aging sewage treatment systems that have exceeded their useful life; dams on the state's "high hazard" list that do not meet modern dam safety requirements; and bridges that have been flagged as potential hazards. We have failing electrical systems. We have landfills that, although inactive for many years, were never closed to DEC standards. Health and safety improvements at State Parks have been and continue to be our top priority.

Rehabilitation of Existing Facilities. This category is by far the largest, comprising two-thirds of OPRHP's total identified capital needs. It encompasses capital rehabilitation of existing infrastructure - replacing facilities that have long exceeded their practical and operational effectiveness and are in various states of disrepair, including roofs, heating and plumbing systems, visitor centers, bathrooms, swimming pools, bathhouses, picnic areas, recreational facilities, campgrounds, nature centers, roads, parking areas, hiking trails, and historic buildings.

Fortunately, this past year Governor Paterson, the Senate, and the Assembly responded to this challenge. The current 2008-09 state budget created a new State Parks Capital Initiative. This initiative, coupled with other funds OPRHP secured from federal, state, and private sources, enabled the agency to advance a $132 million program to revitalize the State Parks System. Using these funds, the agency has initiated capital improvements in more than 80 State Parks and Historic Sites across New York State. This coming summer the public will experience the positive results of this investment in our parks and historic sites. As a result of economic downturn, we expect very strong visitation next year as people seek affordable, close-to-home day trips and vacations.

The core of the revitalization effort was a new $75.5 million appropriation for State Parks capital projects. As charged by the Governor and Legislature, we have aggressively put these funds to work. As of today, nine months through the fiscal year, we have spent or have under contract 96 percent of the $75.5 million. We are on track to encumber all dollars appropriated by the end of the fiscal year.

Here are just a few examples of the types of State Park revitalization projects made possible by this year's State Parks Capital Initiative.

Four Mile Creek State Park Comfort Station Renovations. At Four Mile Creek in Niagara County, we have replaced a deteriorated comfort station, bringing the park into compliance with NYS sanitary code. The building features several "green" components including water saving fixtures and skylights, and is fully accessible.

Letchworth State Park. At Letchworth, seven miles of park roads were repaired and repaved, and several public parking areas were resurfaced - addressing critical but long-deferred park infrastructure needs. Other projects initiated at Letchworth this year include waterline improvements and construction of a new washhouse to serve campers.

Saratoga Spa State Park. The large Peerless Pool complex, including the fully-accessible main pool, slide pool, and toddler pool, were rehabilitated.

Allegany State Park Cabin Loop Restoration. We initiated restoration of deteriorated public rental cabins throughout the park, which has 424 campsites and 375 cabins spread throughout its 65,000 acres.

FDR State Park Bathhouse. Capital projects completed using this year's funding include the rehabilitation of bathhouse and pool fencing. FDR State Park, located in Westchester County, draws 570,000 visitors annually.

Green Lakes State Park Bathhouse Reconstruction. We are well underway on the construction of a new $2.3 million bathhouse at the swimming beach in this popular park, just outside of Syracuse. The new bathhouse incorporates many of the existing architectural styles of the original Green Lakes buildings constructed in the 1930s, blended with today's building code updates, accessibility standards, and green technologies. The bathhouse will open for Memorial Day weekend.

Riverbank Traffic Circle. The replacement of the traffic circle roadway which provides the park's main entrance for vehicles, including public buses, is nearly complete. In addition to the traffic circle the agency is processing contracts to rehabilitate failing roofs and HVAC systems at Riverbank

Looking forward to next year, Governor Paterson's Executive Budget continues the State Parks Revitalization effort during 2009-10. The agency's "all funds" capital budget - funds available from state, federal, and private sources for park rehabilitation projects - totals approximately $65 million for next year. While this is a reduction from our current level of capital funding, in this difficult financial climate we are gratified to be in a position to continue to make progress in addressing our $650 million capital backlog. For illustration, here are just a few examples of the capital projects we will initiate this year: replacing natural gas lines at Saratoga Spa State Park; reconstructing the eroding seawall at Verona Beach State Park; and properly closing the Crick's landfill at Allegany State Park.

The two major funding sources for our capital program are:

  • $27.5 million from the State Parks Infrastructure Fund (SPIF), which receives income and revenue generated in our parks.

  • $19 million from the State Lands Stewardship category of the Environmental Protection Fund. This EPF stewardship funding is a critical part of continuing our parks revitalization initiative.

Other components of Governor Paterson's proposed $205 million Environmental Protection Fund for Fiscal Year 2009-10 include:

  • $58 million to be shared with DEC for Open Space Acquisition, under terms of the state's Open Space Plan. This funding is the sole source available to the agency for parkland purchases. Acquisitions are often once-in-a-generation opportunities to conserve important environmental and historic resources and to provide buffers to protect existing State Parks from encroaching development.
  • $8.4 million for municipal parks and historic preservation grants to local governments and non-profits. Local governments and non-profits are key partners in providing recreational and historic preservation opportunities to all New Yorkers.
  • Several funding items for the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial including $3 million to support Quadricentennial projects and $4 million to continue efforts to transform the abandoned Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge into a Quad centerpiece.

The $205 million Environmental Protection Fund represents a 20 percent reduction in this year's funding level, and a number of the individual EPF categories are reduced in comparison to the current year. Despite the year-to-year reductions, the EPF is still funded at levels nearly 40 percent higher than in 2005-2006. Governor Paterson's commitment to land preservation, stewardship and environmental capital projects remains strong, even in tough economic times. Reductions represent a decision to focus allocations on the EPF's core mission - addressing pressing capital needs facing New York State.

The Governor proposes to expand New York's existing bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverages, and to capture the unclaimed nickels on unredeemed containers. Continuation of the State Parks Capital Initiative and other vital environmental programs are directly tied to the enactment of an expanded bottle bill. It is anticipated that, if enacted, this new revenue stream would generate $118 million next year and is a critical part of the $205 million Environmental Protection Fund budget.

New York State is facing the largest budget deficit in history and many more difficult decisions will have to be made over the coming months. Perhaps the easiest decision you can make this session is updating and expanding New York's 26-year-old bottle return law. I strongly urge your support for this legislation.

Like all state agencies, over the past nine months State Parks has implemented a number of actions to reduce our budget in response to the state's unprecedented financial crisis. We have done so with an eye to maintaining our highest priority services, to meet the needs of the 55 million visitors to our state parks and historic sites.

Specifically, this past year we have implemented the following actions:

  • Fall and Winter Park Service Reductions. This fall and winter we implemented park and historic site service reductions at approximately 75 state parks and historic sites. For example, we have closed some boat launches and campgrounds earlier this fall than normal, when public use of these facilities tends to be at its lowest; temporarily suspended some winter programs such as sledding, environmental programming and special events; reduced hours of operations at selected Historic Sites; and temporarily closed several parks that have low winter attendance.
  • Heritage Areas. We reduced staff support at the state's 19 local Heritage Areas and reassigned these personnel to higher priority functions within the agency. State support for Heritage Areas will continue through the agency grants programs under the Environmental Protection Fund.
  • Green Thumb. We reluctantly eliminated our contract with the Green Thumb Program, which had placed approximately 150 seniors in seasonal positions in State Parks and Historic Sites.
  • State Park Police. The 2008 Park Police Academy (Basic School), scheduled to begin last November, was cancelled. The academy would have graduated approximately 30 new recruits this coming June. We will redeploy existing Park Police Officers this summer to meet our needs without jeopardizing public safety.
  • The FY2009-10 Executive Budget continues and expands on these reductions. Under the Executive Budget, our agency's recommended operating budget next year totals $227.2 million, including General Fund appropriations of $139.6 million. These appropriations carry forward savings implemented during the current fiscal year, plus additional reductions for a next year total of $16.9 million in spending reductions and $10 million in revenue actions. The net impact of these actions is a 15 percent reduction to our operating budget over two years.

As we consider actions that will allow us to meet our cost-cutting goals, it is important to note that 83 percent of our agency operating budget goes directly toward the operations of our 178 parks and 35 historic sites. Our priority has been and continues to be maintaining front-line park visitor services and public safety at our facilities and we are working on a plan to accommodate increasing public demand within available funding levels. Anticipated actions in the coming year include:

  • Empire State Games.
  • Last week we announced that our 2009-10 plan eliminates $2 million in annual General Fund support for the Empire State Games, as well as $700,000 in sponsorship funds from the Division of Lottery. The Summer and Winter Games will go forward next year, but with a reduced program and with the institution of participant fees. In these extremely difficult fiscal times we are refocusing the Games on their original mission of supporting and encouraging youth fitness and athletics for high school-age students. The Games for the Physically Challenged will continue with some program reductions but without institution of participant fees. However, our plan suspends the Senior Games and the masters and adult level competitions of the Summer and Winter Games next year. Looking ahead to the 2010 games, we will be launching an aggressive private fundraising campaign to support the Games in future years and perhaps to restore some of this year's reductions.

  • Hiring Freeze and Spending Controls. As you know, a statewide hiring freeze was instituted last August and remains in place. The 2009-10 budget calls for a reduction of 62 permanent agency positions through attrition, from an authorized All Funds staffing level of 2,276 to a recommended fill target of 2,214. Our seasonal staff workforce will also be reduced, and the budget requires tight spending controls on non-personal services - limiting equipment purchases, travel, and service contracts solely to essential expenditures. The Executive Budget does not anticipate any layoffs in the agency's permanent workforce.
  • Park Service Reductions. The level of our operating budget reduction requires that we implement targeted service modifications at selected parks and historic sites. The reductions will, again, focus on lesser utilized facilities and areas, consolidation of services, reduced hours and days of operations, and shorter seasons (later openings in the spring and earlier closings in the fall). Site-specific decisions are still under development and I will share our plan with you when it is complete.
  • Fee Increases. The Executive Budget does not propose increases of our Vehicle Use Fees, which are the basic entrance fees for our facilities. However, we are adopting a variety of fee increases that will generate $6.5 million in additional revenue during 2009-10. A number of these changes have already been implemented in order to capture additional funds this fiscal year. Park user fee increases are being implemented in the following areas: camping, cabins, marinas, golf, the Empire Passport, and miscellaneous regional fees (such as picnic shelter rentals). The revenue from these fee increases, which by law are dedicated back to the agency, will enable us to avoid what otherwise would be much deeper service cuts at parks and sites

Once again, these actions have been selected to minimize adverse impacts to the agency's primary mission of operating the 213 State Parks and Historic Sites and providing quality recreational and interpretive experiences to the more than 55 million annual visitors to our facilities. To repeat a point I made earlier, 83 percent of our total operating budget goes toward park operations and direct line public services. This time of fiscal crisis has required us to focus on maintaining our highest priorities. As difficult as it has been to implement cost reduction measures, in order to meet our 15 percent budget reduction target, these choices were made in order to avoid even deeper cuts to the operation of our State Parks and Historic Sites.

Let me turn to one of the highlights of the coming year. This June the Bethpage Black course will host the 109th United States Open Golf Championship and the eyes of the world will be on Bethpage State Park. A huge amount of work is underway - both within our agency and in partnership with the many other state and local agencies involved in the Open - to prepare for this event. We will be ready to stage a world class event.

As you know, Governor Paterson has been a leading national voice advocating for President-elect Obama and Congress to quickly enact a major federal stimulus package. We are actively supporting the Governor's stimulus goals in two areas: federal funding for "shovel ready" infrastructure projects; and creation of a Youth Conservation Corps to put young people to work.

In late December, Governor Paterson announced that New York State has compiled a list of $11.7 billion of high priority infrastructure needs. The Governor's list includes 31 projects, totaling $35 million, of "shovel ready" infrastructure projects in State Parks and Historic Sites. Our list includes rehabilitation of park roadways, repair of aging bridges, and improvements to drinking water and sewage treatment systems.

Through our successful State Parks Revitalization initiative, we have demonstrated the agency's ability to rapidly and efficiently put capital funds to work. To remind you, we have already spent and placed under contract 96 percent of the $75.5 million State Parks Capital Initiative included in the 2008-09 budget. Under this year's capital program, OPRHP has entered into 150 contracts and more than 400 subcontracts with private construction and engineering firms. Given the nature of our projects, we are contracting with small and medium-sized local contractors. This year's capital program has created more than 3,600 private sector construction jobs.

Our federal stimulus program list is comprised of "shovel ready" projects, for which design and engineering has already been completed, that can be put out to bid in 60 to 90 days, with construction underway by this summer. These projects will create thousands of additional private sector jobs. I am diligently working to support the Governor's efforts to advance the federal infrastructure investment program.

In addition, Governor Paterson has called for increased federal support for job training and "green jobs," including new funds for summer youth jobs and Youth Conservation Corps Programs. Our agency has a long history of successful implementation of youth employment and conservation corps initiatives. State Parks has the capital repair needs, the organizational capacity, and the experience to quickly implement these programs across the state. We are working with the State Department of Labor on a 21st Century Conservation Corps proposal and stand ready to implement these programs efficiently and effectively.

In closing, I appreciate the tremendous interest and support that members of the Legislature have provided to our agency and the State Parks System. I fully recognize that many of the spending reductions implemented by our agency are difficult and will generate controversy among park users and the public. The reality, though, is that all parts of state government are sharing in the sacrifice of addressing the unprecedented financial deficits facing New York for the next several years.

Parks make a major contribution to healthy and successful local communities. Quality of life and livable communities are major drivers in attracting and retaining businesses, large and small. Recreational and outdoor tourism are major components of our state's economy. And, recreational and exercise opportunities in our parks can play an important role in advancing Governor Paterson's new initiative to combat childhood obesity. In summary, our agency is committed to providing high quality, safe, and healthy visitor experiences to the more than 55 million people who will visit our State Parks and Historic Sites this year.

I am happy to answer any questions you may have regarding the Executive Budget. Thank you.